Part 5 out of 6
in a house with a steep-pitched roof. There was a little paved
courtyard in front, where the rose-bushes grew and clambered up to the
windows of the upper story. Behind lay a little country garden, with
its box-edged borders, shut in by damp, gloomy-looking walls. The
prim, gray-painted street door, with its wicket opening and bell
attached, announced quite as plainly as the official scutcheon that "a
notary lives here."
It was half-past five o'clock in the afternoon, at which hour the old
man usually sat digesting his dinner. He had drawn his black leather-
covered armchair before the fire, and put on his armor, a painted
pasteboard contrivance shaped like a top boot, which protected his
stockinged legs from the heat of the fire; for it was one of the good
man's habits to sit for a while after dinner with his feet on the dogs
and to stir up the glowing coals. He always ate too much; he was fond
of good living. Alas! if it had not been for that little failing,
would he not have been more perfect than it is permitted to mortal man
to be? Chesnel had finished his cup of coffee. His old housekeeper had
just taken away the tray which had been used for the purpose for the
last twenty years. He was waiting for his clerks to go before he
himself went out for his game at cards, and meanwhile he was thinking
--no need to ask of whom or what. A day seldom passed but he asked
himself, "Where is HE? What is HE doing?" He thought that the Count
was in Italy with the fair Duchesse de Maufrigneuse.
When every franc of a man's fortune has come to him, not by
inheritance, but through his own earning and saving, it is one of his
sweetest pleasures to look back upon the pains that have gone to the
making of it, and then to plan out a future for his crowns. This it is
to conjugate the verb "to enjoy" in every tense. And the old lawyer,
whose affections were all bound up in a single attachment, was
thinking that all the carefully-chosen, well-tilled land which he had
pinched and scraped to buy would one day go to round the d'Esgrignon
estates, and the thought doubled his pleasure. His pride swelled as he
sat at his ease in the old armchair; and the building of glowing
coals, which he raised with the tongs, sometimes seemed to him to be
the old noble house built up again, thanks to his care. He pictured
the young Count's prosperity, and told himself that he had done well
to live for such an aim. Chesnel was not lacking in intelligence;
sheer goodness was not the sole source of his great devotion; he had a
pride of his own; he was like the nobles who used to rebuild a pillar
in a cathedral to inscribe their name upon it; he meant his name to be
remembered by the great house which he had restored. Future
generations of d'Esgrignons should speak of old Chesnel. Just at this
point his old housekeeper came in with signs of alarm in her
"Is the house on fire, Brigitte?"
"Something of the sort," said she. "Here is M. du Croisier wanting to
speak to you----"
"M. du Croisier," repeated the old lawyer. A stab of cold misgiving
gave him so sharp a pang at the heart that he dropped the tongs. "M.
du Croisier here!" thought he, "our chief enemy!"
Du Croisier came in at that moment, like a cat that scents milk in a
dairy. He made a bow, seated himself quietly in the easy-chair which
the lawyer brought forward, and produced a bill for two hundred and
twenty-seven thousand francs, principal and interest, the total amount
of sums advanced to M. Victurnien in bills of exchange drawn upon du
Croisier, and duly honored by him. Of these, he now demanded immediate
payment, with a threat of proceeding to extremities with the heir-
presumptive of the house. Chesnel turned the unlucky letters over one
by one, and asked the enemy to keep the secret. This he engaged to do
if he were paid within forty-eight hours. He was pressed for money he
had obliged various manufacturers; and there followed a series of the
financial fictions by which neither notaries nor borrowers are
deceived. Chesnel's eyes were dim; he could scarcely keep back the
tears. There was but one way of raising the money; he must mortgage
his own lands up to their full value. But when du Croisier learned the
difficulty in the way of repayment, he forgot that he was hard
pressed; he no longer wanted ready money, and suddenly came out with a
proposal to buy the old lawyer's property. The sale was completed
within two days. Poor Chesnel could not bear the thought of the son of
the house undergoing a five years' imprisonment for debt. So in a few
days' time nothing remained to him but his practice, the sums that
were due to him, and the house in which he lived. Chesnel, stripped of
all his lands, paced to and fro in his private office, paneled with
dark oak, his eyes fixed on the beveled edges of the chestnut cross-
beams of the ceiling, or on the trellised vines in the garden outside.
He was not thinking of his farms now, or of Le Jard, his dear house in
the country; not he.
"What will become of him? He ought to come back; they must marry him
to some rich heiress," he said to himself; and his eyes were dim, his
How to approach Mlle. Armande, and in what words to break the news to
her, he did not know. The man who had just paid the debts of the
family quaked at the thought of confessing these things. He went from
the Rue du Bercail to the Hotel d'Esgrignon with pulses throbbing like
some girl's heart when she leaves her father's roof by stealth, not to
return again till she is a mother and her heart is broken.
Mlle. Armande had just received a charming letter, charming in its
hypocrisy. Her nephew was the happiest man under the sun. He had been
to the baths, he had been traveling in Italy with Mme. de
Maufrigneuse, and now sent his journal to his aunt. Every sentence was
instinct with love. There were enchanting descriptions of Venice, and
fascinating appreciations of the great works of Venetian art; there
were most wonderful pages full of the Duomo at Milan, and again of
Florence; he described the Apennines, and how they differed from the
Alps, and how in some village like Chiavari happiness lay all around
you, ready made.
The poor aunt was under the spell. She saw the far-off country of
love, she saw, hovering above the land, the angel whose tenderness
gave to all that beauty a burning glow. She was drinking in the letter
at long draughts; how should it have been otherwise? The girl who had
put love from her was now a woman ripened by repressed and pent-up
passion, by all the longings continually and gladly offered up as a
sacrifice on the altar of the hearth. Mlle. Armande was not like the
Duchess. She did not look like an angel. She was rather like the
little, straight, slim and slender, ivory-tinted statues, which those
wonderful sculptors, the builders of cathedrals, placed here and there
about the buildings. Wild plants sometimes find a hold in the damp
niches, and weave a crown of beautiful bluebell flowers about the
carved stone. At this moment the blue buds were unfolding in the fair
saint's eyes. Mlle. Armande loved the charming couple as if they stood
apart from real life; she saw nothing wrong in a married woman's love
for Victurnien; any other woman she would have judged harshly; but in
this case, not to have loved her nephew would have been the
unpardonable sin. Aunts, mothers, and sisters have a code of their own
for nephews and sons and brothers.
Mlle. Armande was in Venice; she saw the lines of fairy palaces that
stand on either side of the Grand Canal; she was sitting in
Victurnien's gondola; he was telling her what happiness it had been to
feel that the Duchess' beautiful hand lay in his own, to know that she
loved him as they floated together on the breast of the amorous Queen
of Italian seas. But even in that moment of bliss, such as angels
know, some one appeared in the garden walk. It was Chesnel! Alas! the
sound of his tread on the gravel might have been the sound of the
sands running from Death's hour-glass to be trodden under his unshod
feet. The sound, the sight of a dreadful hopelessness in Chesnel's
face, gave her that painful shock which follows a sudden recall of the
senses when the soul has sent them forth into the world of dreams.
"What is it?" she cried, as if some stab had pierced to her heart.
"All is lost!" said Chesnel. "M. le Comte will bring dishonor upon the
house if we do not set it in order." He held out the bills, and
described the agony of the last few days in a few simple but vigorous
and touching words.
"He is deceiving us! The miserable boy!" cried Mlle. Armande, her
heart swelling as the blood surged back to it in heavy throbs.
"Let us both say mea culpa, mademoiselle," the old lawyer said
stoutly; "we have always allowed him to have his own way; he needed
stern guidance; he could not have it from you with your inexperience
of life; nor from me, for he would not listen to me. He has had no
"Fate sometimes deals terribly with a noble house in decay," said
Mlle. Armande, with tears in her eyes.
The Marquis came up as she spoke. He had been walking up and down the
garden while he read the letter sent by his son after his return.
Victurnien gave his itinerary from an aristocrat's point of view;
telling how he had been welcomed by the greatest Italian families of
Genoa, Turin, Milan, Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples. This
flattering reception he owed to his name, he said, and partly,
perhaps, to the Duchess as well. In short, he had made his appearance
magnificently, and as befitted a d'Esgrignon.
"Have you been at your old tricks, Chesnel?" asked the Marquis.
Mlle. Armande made Chesnel an eager sign, dreadful to see. They
understood each other. The poor father, the flower of feudal honor,
must die with all his illusions. A compact of silence and devotion was
ratified between the two noble hearts by a simple inclination of the
"Ah! Chesnel, it was not exactly in this way that the d'Esgrignons
went into Italy at the end of the fourteenth century, when Marshal
Trivulzio, in the service of the King of France, served under a
d'Esgrignon, who had a Bayard too under his orders. Other times, other
pleasures. And, for that matter, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse is at
least the equal of a Marchesa di Spinola."
And, on the strength of his genealogical tree, the old man swung
himself off with a coxcomb's air, as if he himself had once made a
conquest of the Marchesa di Spinola, and still possessed the Duchess
The two companions in unhappiness were left together on the garden
bench, with the same thought for a bond of union. They sat for a long
time, saying little save vague, unmeaning words, watching the father
walk away in his happiness, gesticulating as if he were talking to
"What will become of him now?" Mlle. Armande asked after a while.
"Du Croisier has sent instructions to the MM. Keller; he is not to be
allowed to draw any more without authorization."
"And there are debts," continued Mlle. Armande.
"I am afraid so."
"If he is left without resources, what will he do?"
"I dare not answer that question to myself."
"But he must be drawn out of that life, he must come back to us, or he
will have nothing left."
"And nothing else left to him," Chesnel said gloomily. But Mlle.
Armande as yet did not and could not understand the full force of
"Is there any hope of getting him away from that woman, that Duchess?
Perhaps she leads him on."
"He would not stick at a crime to be with her," said Chesnel, trying
to pave the way to an intolerable thought by others less intolerable.
"Crime," repeated Mlle. Armande. "Oh, Chesnel, no one but you would
think of such a thing!" she added, with a withering look; before such
a look from a woman's eyes no mortal can stand. "There is but one
crime that a noble can commit--the crime of high treason; and when he
is beheaded, the block is covered with a black cloth, as it is for
"The times have changed very much," said Chesnel, shaking his head.
Victurnien had thinned his last thin, white hairs. "Our Martyr-King
did not die like the English King Charles."
That thought soothed Mlle. Armande's splendid indignation; a shudder
ran through her; but still she did not realize what Chesnel meant.
"To-morrow we will decide what we must do," she said; "it needs
thought. At the worst, we have our lands."
"Yes," said Chesnel. "You and M. le Marquis own the estate conjointly;
but the larger part of it is yours. You can raise money upon it
without saying a word to him."
The players at whist, reversis, boston, and backgammon noticed that
evening that Mlle. Armande's features, usually so serene and pure,
showed signs of agitation.
"That poor heroic child!" said the old Marquise de Casteran, "she must
be suffering still. A woman never knows what her sacrifices to her
family may cost her."
Next day it was arranged with Chesnel that Mlle. Armande should go to
Paris to snatch her nephew from perdition. If any one could carry off
Victurnien, was it not the woman whose motherly heart yearned over
him? Mlle. Armande made up her mind that she would go to the Duchesse
de Maufrigneuse and tell her all. Still, some sort of pretext was
necessary to explain the journey to the Marquis and the whole town. At
some cost to her maidenly delicacy, Mlle. Armande allowed it to be
thought that she was suffering from a complaint which called for a
consultation of skilled and celebrated physicians. Goodness knows
whether the town talked of this or no! But Mlle. Armande saw that
something far more than her own reputation was at stake. She set out.
Chesnel brought her his last bag of louis; she took it, without paying
any attention to it, as she took her white capuchine and thread
"Generous girl! What grace!" he said, as he put her into the carriage
with her maid, a woman who looked like a gray sister.
Du Croisier had thought out his revenge, as provincials think out
everything. For studying out a question in all its bearings, there are
no folk in this world like savages, peasants, and provincials; and
this is how, when they proceed from thought to action, you find every
contingency provided for from beginning to end. Diplomatists are
children compared with these classes of mammals; they have time before
them, an element which is lacking to those people who are obliged to
think about a great many things, to superintend the progress of all
kinds of schemes, to look forward for all sorts of contingencies in
the wider interests of human affairs. Had de Croisier sounded poor
Victurnien's nature so well, that he foresaw how easily the young
Count would lend himself to his schemes of revenge? Or was he merely
profiting by an opportunity for which he had been on the watch for
years? One circumstance there was, to be sure, in his manner of
preparing his stroke, which shows a certain skill. Who was it that
gave du Croisier warning of the moment? Was it the Kellers? Or could
it have been President du Ronceret's son, then finishing his law
studies in Paris?
Du Croisier wrote to Victurnien, telling him that the Kellers had been
instructed to advance no more money; and that letter was timed to
arrive just as the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse was in the utmost
perplexity, and the Comte d'Esgrignon consumed by the sense of poverty
as dreadful as it was cunningly hidden. The wretched young man was
exerting all his ingenuity to seem as if he were wealthy!
Now in the letter which informed the victim that in future the Kellers
would make no further advances without security, there was a tolerably
wide space left between the forms of an exaggerated respect and the
signature. It was quite easy to tear off the best part of the letter
and convert it into a bill of exchange for any amount. The diabolical
missive had been enclosed in an envelope, so that the other side of
the sheet was blank. When it arrived, Victurnien was writhing in the
lowest depths of despair. After two years of the most prosperous,
sensual, thoughtless, and luxurious life, he found himself face to
face with the most inexorable poverty; it was an absolute
impossibility to procure money. There had been some throes of crisis
before the journey came to an end. With the Duchess' help he had
managed to extort various sums from bankers; but it had been with the
greatest difficulty, and, moreover, those very amounts were about to
start up again before him as overdue bills of exchange in all their
rigor, with a stern summons to pay from the Bank of France and the
commercial court. All through the enjoyments of those last weeks the
unhappy boy had felt the point of the Commander's sword; at every
supper-party he heard, like Don Juan, the heavy tread of the statue
outside upon the stairs. He felt an unaccountable creeping of the
flesh, a warning that the sirocco of debt is nigh at hand. He reckoned
on chance. For five years he had never turned up a blank in the
lottery, his purse had always been replenished. After Chesnel had come
du Croisier (he told himself), after du Croisier surely another gold
mine would pour out its wealth. And besides, he was winning great sums
at play; his luck at play had saved him several unpleasant steps
already; and often a wild hope sent him to the Salon des Etrangers
only to lose his winnings afterwards at whist at the club. His life
for the past two months had been like the immortal finale of Mozart's
Don Giovanni; and of a truth, if a young man has come to such a plight
as Victurnien's, that finale is enough to make him shudder. Can
anything better prove the enormous power of music than that sublime
rendering of the disorder and confusion arising out of a life wholly
give up to sensual indulgence? that fearful picture of a deliberate
effort to shut out the thought of debts and duels, deceit and evil
luck? In that music Mozart disputes the palm with Moliere. The
terrific finale, with its glow, its power, its despair and laughter,
its grisly spectres and elfish women, centres about the prodigal's
last effort made in the after-supper heat of wine, the frantic
struggle which ends the drama. Victurnien was living through this
infernal poem, and alone. He saw visions of himself--a friendless,
solitary outcast, reading the words carved on the stone, the last
words on the last page of the book that had held him spellbound--THE
Yes; for him all would be at an end, and that soon. Already he saw the
cold, ironical eyes which his associates would turn upon him, and
their amusement over his downfall. Some of them he knew were playing
high on that gambling-table kept open all day long at the Bourse, or
in private houses at the clubs, and anywhere and everywhere in Paris;
but not one of these men could spare a banknote to save an intimate.
There was no help for it--Chesnel must be ruined. He had devoured
He sat with the Duchess in their box at the Italiens, the whole house
envying them their happiness, and while he smiled at her, all the
Furies were tearing at his heart. Indeed, to give some idea of the
depths of doubt, despair, and incredulity in which the boy was
groveling; he who so clung to life--the life which the angel had made
so fair--who so loved it, that he would have stooped to baseness
merely to live; he, the pleasure-loving scapegrace, the degenerate
d'Esgrignon, had even taken out his pistols, had gone so far as to
think of suicide. He who would never have brooked the appearance of an
insult was abusing himself in language which no man is likely to hear
except from himself.
He left du Croisier's letter lying open on the bed. Josephin had
brought it in at nine o'clock. Victurnien's furniture had been
seized, but he slept none the less. After he came back from the
Opera, he and the Duchess had gone to a voluptuous retreat, where
they often spent a few hours together after the most brilliant
court balls and evening parties and gaieties. Appearances were
very cleverly saved. Their love-nest was a garret like any other
to all appearance; Mme. de Maufrigneuse was obliged to bow her
head with its court feathers or wreath of flowers to enter in at
the door; but within all the peris of the East had made the
chamber fair. And now that the Count was on the brink of ruin, he
had longed to bid farewell to the dainty nest, which he had built
to realize a day-dream worthy of his angel. Presently adversity
would break the enchanted eggs; there would be no brood of white
doves, no brilliant tropical birds, no more of the thousand
bright-winged fancies which hover above our heads even to the
last days of our lives. Alas! alas! in three days he must be
gone; his bills had fallen into the hands of the money-lenders,
the law proceedings had reached the last stage.
An evil thought crossed his brain. He would fly with the Duchess; they
would live in some undiscovered nook in the wilds of North or South
America; but--he would fly with a fortune, and leave his creditors to
confront their bills. To carry out the plan, he had only to cut off
the lower portion of that letter with du Croisier's signature, and to
fill in the figures to turn it into a bill, and present it to the
Kellers. There was a dreadful struggle with temptation; tears shed,
but the honor of the family triumphed, subject to one condition.
Victurnien wanted to be sure of his beautiful Diane; he would do
nothing unless she should consent to their flight. So he went to the
Duchess in the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honore, and found her in coquettish
morning dress, which cost as much in thought as in money, a fit dress
in which to begin to play the part of Angel at eleven o'clock in the
Mme. de Maufrigneuse was somewhat pensive. Cares of a similar kind
were gnawing her mind; but she took them gallantly. Of all the various
feminine organizations classified by physiologists, there is one that
has something indescribably terrible about it. Such women combine
strength of soul and clear insight, with a faculty for prompt
decision, and a recklessness, or rather resolution in a crisis which
would shake a man's nerves. And these powers lie out of sight beneath
an appearance of the most graceful helplessness. Such women only among
womankind afford examples of a phenomenon which Buffon recognized in
men alone, to wit, the union, or rather the disunion, of two different
natures in one human being. Other women are wholly women; wholly
tender, wholly devoted, wholly mothers, completely null and completely
tiresome; nerves and brain and blood are all in harmony; but the
Duchess, and others like her, are capable of rising to the highest
heights of feelings, or of showing the most selfish insensibility. It
is one of the glories of Moliere that he has given us a wonderful
portrait of such a woman, from one point of view only, in that
greatest of his full-length figures--Celimene; Celimene is the typical
aristocratic woman, as Figaro, the second edition of Panurge,
represents the people.
So, the Duchess, being overwhelmed with debt, laid it upon herself to
give no more than a moment's thought to the avalanche of cares, and to
take her resolution once and for all; Napoleon could take up or lay
down the burden of his thoughts in precisely the same way. The Duchess
possessed the faculty of standing aloof from herself; she could look
on as a spectator at the crash when it came, instead of submitting to
be buried beneath. This was certainly great, but repulsive in a woman.
When she awoke in the morning she collected her thoughts; and by the
time she had begun to dress she had looked at the danger in its
fullest extent and faced the possibilities of terrific downfall. She
pondered. Should she take refuge in a foreign country? Or should she
go to the King and declare her debts to him? Or again, should she
fascinate a du Tillet or a Nucingen, and gamble on the stock exchange
to pay her creditors? The city man would find the money; he would be
intelligent enough to bring her nothing but the profits, without so
much as mentioning the losses, a piece of delicacy which would gloss
all over. The catastrophe, and these various ways of averting it, had
all been reviewed quite coolly, calmly, and without trepidation.
As a naturalist takes up some king of butterflies and fastens him down
on cotton-wool with a pin, so Mme. de Maufrigneuse had plucked love
out of her heart while she pondered the necessity of the moment, and
was quite ready to replace the beautiful passion on its immaculate
setting so soon as her duchess' coronet was safe. SHE knew none of the
hesitation which Cardinal Richelieu hid from all the world but Pere
Joseph; none of the doubts that Napoleon kept at first entirely to
himself. "Either the one or the other," she told herself.
She was sitting by the fire, giving orders for her toilette for a
drive in the Bois if the weather should be fine, when Victurnien came
The Comte d'Esgrignon, with all his stifled capacity, his so keen
intellect, was in exactly the state which might have been looked for
in the woman. His heart was beating violently, the perspiration broke
out over him as he stood in his dandy's trappings; he was afraid as
yet to lay a hand on the corner-stone which upheld the pyramid of his
life with Diane. So much it cost him to know the truth. The cleverest
men are fain to deceive themselves on one or two points if the truth
once known is likely to humiliate them in their own eyes, and damage
themselves with themselves. Victurnien forced his own irresolution
into the field by committing himself.
"What is the matter with you?" Diane de Maufrigneuse had said at once,
at the sight of her beloved Victurnien's face.
"Why, dear Diane, I am in such a perplexity; a man gone to the bottom
and at his last gasp is happy in comparison."
"Pshaw! it is nothing," said she; "you are a child. Let us see now;
tell me about it."
"I am hopelessly in debt. I have come to the end of my tether."
"Is that all?" said she, smiling at him. "Money matters can always be
arranged somehow or other; nothing is irretrievable except disasters
Victurnien's mind being set at rest by this swift comprehension of his
position, he unrolled the bright-colored web of his life for the last
two years and a half; but it was the seamy side of it which he
displayed with something of genius, and still more of wit, to his
Diane. He told his tale with the inspiration of the moment, which
fails no one in great crises; he had sufficient artistic skill to set
it off by a varnish of delicate scorn for men and things. It was an
aristocrat who spoke. And the Duchess listened as she could listen.
One knee was raised, for she sat with her foot on a stool. She rested
her elbow on her knee and leant her face on her hand so that her
fingers closed daintily over her shapely chin. Her eyes never left
his; but thoughts by myriads flitted under the blue surface, like
gleams of stormy light between two clouds. Her forehead was calm, her
mouth gravely intent--grave with love; her lips were knotted fast by
Victurnien's lips. To have her listening thus was to believe that a
divine love flowed from her heart. Wherefore, when the Count had
proposed flight to this soul, so closely knit to his own, he could not
help crying, "You are an angel!"
The fair Maufrigneuse made silent answer; but she had not spoken as
"Good, very good," she said at last. (She had not given herself up to
the love expressed in her face; her mind had been entirely absorbed by
deep-laid schemes which she kept to herself.) "But THAT is not the
question, dear." (The "angel" was only "that" by this time.) "Let us
think of your affairs. Yes, we will go, and the sooner the better.
Arrange it all; I will follow you. It is glorious to leave Paris and
the world behind. I will set about my preparations in such a way that
no one can suspect anything."
I WILL FOLLOW YOU! Just so Mlle. Mars might have spoken those words to
send a thrill through two thousand listening men and women. When a
Duchesse de Maufrigneuse offers, in such words, to make such a
sacrifice to love, she has paid her debt. How should Victurnien speak
of sordid details after that? He could so much the better hide his
schemes, because Diane was particularly careful not to inquire into
them. She was now, and always, as de Marsay said, an invited guest at
a banquet wreathed with roses, a banquet which mankind, as in duty
bound, made ready for her.
Victurnien would not go till the promise had been sealed. He must draw
courage from his happiness before he could bring himself to do a deed
on which, as he inwardly told himself, people would be certain to put
a bad construction. Still (and this was the thought that decided him)
he counted on his aunt and father to hush up the affair; he even
counted on Chesnel. Chesnel would think of one more compromise.
Besides, "this business," as he called it in his thoughts, was the
only way of raising money on the family estate. With three hundred
thousand francs, he and Diane would lead a happy life hidden in some
palace in Venice; and there they would forget the world. They went
through their romance in advance.
Next day Victurnien made out a bill for three hundred thousand francs,
and took it to the Kellers. The Kellers advanced the money, for du
Croisier happened to have a balance at the time; but they wrote to let
him know that he must not draw again on them without giving them
notice. Du Croisier, much astonished, asked for a statement of
accounts. It was sent. Everything was explained. The day of his
vengeance had arrived.
When Victurnien had drawn "his" money, he took it to Mme. de
Maufrigneuse. She locked up the banknotes in her desk, and proposed to
bid the world farewell by going to the Opera to see it for the last
time. Victurnien was thoughtful, absent, and uneasy. He was beginning
to reflect. He thought that his seat in the Duchess' box might cost
him dear; that perhaps, when he had put the three hundred thousand
francs in safety, it would be better to travel post, to fall at
Chesnel's feet, and tell him all. But before they left the opera-
house, the Duchess, in spite of herself, gave Victurnien an adorable
glance, her eyes were shining with the desire to go back once more to
bid farewell to the nest which she loved so much. And boy that he was,
he lost a night.
The next day, at three o'clock, he was back again at the Hotel de
Maufrigneuse; he had come to take the Duchess' orders for that night's
escape. And, "Why should we go?" asked she; "I have thought it all
out. The Vicomtesse de Beauseant and the Duchesse de Langeais
disappeared. If I go too, it will be something quite commonplace. We
will brave the storm. It will be a far finer thing to do. I am sure of
success." Victurnien's eyes dazzled; he felt as if his skin were
dissolving and the blood oozing out all over him.
"What is the matter with you?" cried the fair Diane, noticing a
hesitation which a woman never forgives. Your truly adroit lover will
hasten to agree with any fancy that Woman may take into her head, and
suggest reasons for doing otherwise, while leaving her free exercise
of her right to change her mind, her intentions, and sentiments
generally as often as she pleases. Victurnien was angry for the first
time, angry with the wrath of a weak man of poetic temperament; it was
a storm of rain and lightning flashes, but no thunder followed. The
angel on whose faith he had risked more than his life, the honor of
his house, was very roughly handled.
"So," said she, "we have come to this after eighteen months of
tenderness! You are unkind, very unkind. Go away!--I do not want to
see you again. I thought that you loved me. You do not."
"I DO NOT LOVE YOU?" repeated he, thunderstruck by the reproach.
"And yet----" he cried. "Ah! if you but knew what I have just done for
"And how have you done so much for me, monsieur? As if a man ought not
to do anything for a woman that has done so much for him."
"You are not worthy to know it!" Victurnien cried in a passion of
After that sublime, "Oh!" Diane bowed her head on her hand and sat,
still, cold, and implacable as angels naturally may be expected to do,
seeing that they share none of the passions of humanity. At the sight
of the woman he loved in this terrible attitude, Victurnien forgot his
danger. Had he not just that moment wronged the most angelic creature
on earth? He longed for forgiveness, he threw himself before her, he
kissed her feet, he pleaded, he wept. Two whole hours the unhappy
young man spent in all kinds of follies, only to meet the same cold
face, while the great silent tears dropping one by one, were dried as
soon as they fell lest the unworthy lover should try to wipe them
away. The Duchess was acting a great agony, one of those hours which
stamp the woman who passes through them as something august and
Two more hours went by. By this time the Count had gained possession
of Diane's hand; it felt cold and spiritless. The beautiful hand, with
all the treasures in its grasp, might have been supple wood; there was
nothing of Diane in it; he had taken it, it had not been given to him.
As for Victurnien, the spirit had ebbed out of his frame, he had
ceased to think. He would not have seen the sun in heaven. What was to
be done? What course should he take? What resolution should he make?
The man who can keep his head in such circumstances must be made of
the same stuff as the convict who spent the night in robbing the
Bibliotheque Royale of its gold medals, and repaired to his honest
brother in the morning with a request to melt down the plunder. "What
is to be done?" cried the brother. "Make me some coffee," replied the
thief. Victurnien sank into a bewildered stupor, darkness settled down
over his brain. Visions of past rapture flitted across the misty gloom
like the figures that Raphael painted against a black background; to
these he must bid farewell. Inexorable and disdainful, the Duchess
played with the tip of her scarf. She looked in irritation at
Victurnien from time to time; she coquetted with memories, she spoke
to her lover of his rivals as if anger had finally decided her to
prefer one of them to a man who could so change in one moment after
twenty-eight months of love.
"Ah! that charming young Felix de Vandenesse, so faithful as he was to
Mme. de Mortsauf, would never have permitted himself such a scene! He
can love, can de Vandenesse! De Marsay, that terrible de Marsay, such
a tiger as everyone thought him, was rough with other men; but like
all strong men, he kept his gentleness for women. Montriveau trampled
the Duchesse de Langeais under foot, as Othello killed Desdemona, in a
burst of fury which at any rate proved the extravagance of his love.
It was not like a paltry squabble. There was rapture in being so
crushed. Little, fair-haired, slim, and slender men loved to torment
women; they could only reign over poor, weak creatures; it pleased
them to have some ground for believing that they were men. The tyranny
of love was their one chance of asserting their power. She did not
know why she had put herself at the mercy of fair hair. Such men as de
Marsay, Montriveau, and Vandenesse, dark-haired and well grown, had a
ray of sunlight in their eyes."
It was a storm of epigrams. Her speeches, like bullets, came hissing
past his ears. Every word that Diane hurled at him was triple-barbed;
she humiliated, stung, and wounded him with an art that was all her
own, as half a score of savages can torture an enemy bound to a stake.
"You are mad!" he cried at last, at the end of his patience, and out
he went in God knows what mood. He drove as if he had never handled
the reins before, locked his wheels in the wheels of other vehicles,
collided with the curbstone in the Place Louis-Quinze, went he knew
not whither. The horse, left to its own devices, made a bolt for the
stable along the Quai d'Orsay; but as he turned into the Rue de
l'Universite, Josephin appeared to stop the runaway.
"You cannot go home, sir," the old man said, with a scared face; "they
have come with a warrant to arrest you."
Victurnien thought that he had been arrested on the criminal charge,
albeit there had not been time for the public prosecutor to receive
his instructions. He had forgotten the matter of the bills of
exchange, which had been stirred up again for some days past in the
form of orders to pay, brought by the officers of the court with
accompaniments in the shape of bailiffs, men in possession,
magistrates, commissaries, policemen, and other representatives of
social order. Like most guilty creatures, Victurnien had forgotten
everything but his crime.
"It is all over with me," he cried.
"No, M. le Comte, drive as fast as you can to the Hotel du Bon la
Fontaine, in the Rue de Grenelle. Mlle. Armande is waiting there for
you, the horses have been put in, she will take you with her."
Victurnien, in his trouble, caught like a drowning man at the branch
that came to his hand; he rushed off to the inn, reached the place,
and flung his arms about his aunt. Mlle. Armande cried as if her heart
would break; any one might have thought that she had a share in her
nephew's guilt. They stepped into the carriage. A few minutes later
they were on the road to Brest, and Paris lay behind them. Victurnien
uttered not a sound; he was paralyzed. And when aunt and nephew began
to speak, they talked at cross purposes; Victurnien, still laboring
under the unlucky misapprehension which flung him into Mlle. Armande's
arms, was thinking of his forgery; his aunt had the debts and the
bills on her mind.
"You know all, aunt," he had said.
"Poor boy, yes, but we are here. I am not going to scold you just yet.
"I must hide somewhere."
"Perhaps. . . . Yes, it is a very good idea."
"Perhaps I might get into Chesnel's house without being seen if we
timed ourselves to arrive in the middle of the night?"
"That will be best. We shall be better able to hide this from my
brother.--Poor angel! how unhappy he is!" said she, petting the
"Ah! now I begin to know what dishonor means; it has chilled my love."
"Unhappy boy; what bliss and what misery!" And Mlle. Armande drew his
fevered face to her breast and kissed his forehead, cold and damp
though it was, as the holy women might have kissed the brow of the
dead Christ when they laid Him in His grave clothes. Following out the
excellent scheme suggested by the prodigal son, he was brought by
night to the quiet house in the Rue du Bercail; but chance ordered it
that by so doing he ran straight into the wolf's jaws, as the saying
goes. That evening Chesnel had been making arrangements to sell his
connection to M. Lepressoir's head-clerk. M. Lepressoir was the notary
employed by the Liberals, just as Chesnel's practice lay among the
aristocratic families. The young fellow's relatives were rich enough
to pay Chesnel the considerable sum of a hundred thousand francs in
Chesnel was rubbing his hands. "A hundred thousand francs will go a
long way in buying up debts," he thought. "The young man is paying a
high rate of interest on his loans. We will lock him up down here. I
will go yonder myself and bring those curs to terms."
Chesnel, honest Chesnel, upright, worthy Chesnel, called his darling
Comte Victurnien's creditors "curs."
Meanwhile his successor was making his way along the Rue du Bercail
just as Mlle. Armande's traveling carriage turned into it. Any young
man might be expected to feel some curiosity if he saw a traveling
carriage stop at a notary's door in such a town and at such an hour of
the night; the young man in question was sufficiently inquisitive to
stand in a doorway and watch. He saw Mlle. Armande alight.
"Mlle. Armande d'Esgrignon at this time of night!" said he to himself.
"What can be going forward at the d'Esgrignons'?"
At the sight of mademoiselle, Chesnel opened the door circumspectly
and set down the light which he was carrying; but when he looked out
and saw Victurnien, Mlle. Armande's first whispered word made the
whole thing plain to him. He looked up and down the street; it seemed
quite deserted; he beckoned, and the young Count sprang out of the
carriage and entered the courtyard. All was lost. Chesnel's successor
had discovered Victurnien's hiding place.
Victurnien was hurried into the house and installed in a room beyond
Chesnel's private office. No one could enter it except across the old
man's dead body.
"Ah! M. le Comte!" exclaimed Chesnel, notary no longer.
"Yes, monsieur," the Count answered, understanding his old friend's
exclamation. "I did not listen to you; and now I have fallen into the
depths, and I must perish."
"No, no," the good man answered, looking triumphantly from Mlle.
Armande to the Count. "I have sold my connection. I have been working
for a very long time now, and am thinking of retiring. By noon to-
morrow I shall have a hundred thousand francs; many things can be
settled with that. Mademoiselle, you are tired," he added; "go back to
the carriage and go home and sleep. Business to-morrow."
"Is he safe?" returned she, looking at Victurnien.
She kissed her nephew; a few tears fell on his forehead. Then she
"My good Chesnel," said the Count, when they began to talk of
business, "what are your hundred thousand francs in such a position as
mine? You do not know the full extent of my troubles, I think."
Victurnien explained the situation. Chesnel was thunderstruck. But for
the strength of his devotion, he would have succumbed to this blow.
Tears streamed from the eyes that might well have had no tears left to
shed. For a few moments he was a child again, for a few moments he was
bereft of his senses; he stood like a man who should find his own
house on fire, and through a window see the cradle ablaze and hear the
hiss of the flames on his children's curls. He rose to his full height
--il se dressa en pied, as Amyot would have said; he seemed to grow
taller; he raised his withered hands and wrung them despairingly and
"If only your father may die and never know this, young man! To be a
forger is enough; a parricide you must not be. Fly, you say? No. They
would condemn you for contempt of court! Oh, wretched boy! Why did you
not forge MY signature? _I_ would have paid; I should not have taken
the bill to the public prosecutor.--Now I can do nothing. You have
brought me to a stand in the lowest pit in hell!--Du Croisier! What
will come of it? What is to be done?--If you had killed a man, there
might be some help for it. But forgery--FORGERY! And time--the time is
flying," he went on, shaking his fist towards the old clock. "You will
want a sham passport now. One crime leads to another. First," he
added, after a pause, "first of all we must save the house of
"But the money is still in Mme. de Maufrigneuse's keeping," exclaimed
"Ah!" exclaimed Chesnel. "Well, there is some hope left--a faint hope.
Could we soften du Croisier, I wonder, or buy him over? He shall have
all the lands if he likes. I will go to him; I will wake him and offer
him all we have.--Besides, it was not you who forged that bill; it was
I. I will go to jail; I am too old for the hulks, they can only put me
"But the body of the bill is in my handwriting," objected Victurnien,
without a sign of surprise at this reckless devotion.
"Idiot! . . . that is, pardon, M. le Comte. Josephin should have been
made to write it," the old notary cried wrathfully. "He is a good
creature; he would have taken it all on his shoulders. But there is an
end of it; the world is falling to pieces," the old man continued,
sinking exhausted into a chair. "Du Croisier is a tiger; we must be
careful not to rouse him. What time is it? Where is the draft? If it
is at Paris, it might be bought back from the Kellers; they might
accommodate us. Ah! but there are dangers on all sides; a single false
step means ruin. Money is wanted in any case. But there! nobody knows
you are here, you must live buried away in the cellar if needs must. I
will go at once to Paris as fast as I can; I can hear the mail coach
In a moment the old man recovered the faculties of his youth--his
agility and vigor. He packed up clothes for the journey, took money,
brought a six-pound loaf to the little room beyond the office, and
turned the key on his child by adoption.
"Not a sound in here," he said, "no light at night; and stop here till
I come back, or you will go to the hulks. Do you understand, M. le
Comte? Yes, TO THE HULKS! if anybody in a town like this knows that
you are here."
With that Chesnel went out, first telling his housekeeper to give out
that he was ill, to allow no one to come into the house, to send
everybody away, and to postpone business of every kind for three days.
He wheedled the manager of the coach-office, made up a tale for his
benefit--he had the makings of an ingenious novelist in him--and
obtained a promise that if there should be a place, he should have it,
passport or no passport, as well as a further promise to keep the
hurried departure a secret. Luckily, the coach was empty when it
In the middle of the following night Chesnel was set down in Paris. At
nine o'clock in the morning he waited on the Kellers, and learned that
the fatal draft had returned to du Croisier three days since; but
while obtaining this information, he in no way committed himself.
Before he went away he inquired whether the draft could be recovered
if the amount were refunded. Francois Keller's answer was to the
effect that the document was du Croisier's property, and that it was
entirely in his power to keep or return it. Then, in desperation, the
old man went to the Duchess.
Mme. de Maufrigneuse was not at home to any visitor at that hour.
Chesnel, feeling that every moment was precious, sat down in the hall,
wrote a few lines, and succeeded in sending them to the lady by dint
of wheedling, fascinating, bribing, and commanding the most insolent
and inaccessible servants in the world. The Duchess was still in bed;
but, to the great astonishment of her household, the old man in black
knee-breeches, ribbed stockings, and shoes with buckles to them, was
shown into her room.
"What is it, monsieur?" she asked, posing in her disorder. "What does
he want of me, ungrateful that he is?"
"It is this, Mme. la Duchesse," the good man exclaimed, "you have a
hundred thousand crowns belonging to us."
"Yes," began she. "What does it signify----?"
"The money was gained by a forgery, for which we are going to the
hulks, a forgery which we committed for love of you," Chesnel said
quickly. "How is it that you did not guess it, so clever as you are?
Instead of scolding the boy, you ought to have had the truth out of
him, and stopped him while there was time, and saved him."
At the first words the Duchess understood; she felt ashamed of her
behavior to so impassioned a lover, and afraid besides that she might
be suspected of complicity. In her wish to prove that she had not
touched the money left in her keeping, she lost all regard for
appearances; and besides, it did not occur to her that the notary was
a man. She flung off the eider-down quilt, sprang to her desk
(flitting past the lawyer like an angel out of one of the vignettes
which illustrate Lamartine's books), held out the notes, and went back
in confusion to bed.
"You are an angel, madame." (She was to be an angel for all the world,
it seemed.) "But this will not be the end of it. I count upon your
influence to save us."
"To save you! I will do it or die! Love that will not shrink from a
crime must be love indeed. Is there a woman in the world for whom such
a thing has been done? Poor boy! Come, do not lose time, dear M.
Chesnel; and count upon me as upon yourself."
"Mme. la Duchesse! Mme. la Duchesse!" It was all that he could say, so
overcome was he. He cried, he could have danced; but he was afraid of
losing his senses, and refrained.
"Between us, we will save him," she said, as he left the room.
Chesnel went straight to Josephin. Josephin unlocked the young Count's
desk and writing-table. Very luckily, the notary found letters which
might be useful, letters from du Croisier and the Kellers. Then he
took a place in a diligence which was just about to start; and by dint
of fees to the postilions, the lumbering vehicle went as quickly as
the coach. His two fellow-passengers on the journey happened to be in
as great a hurry as himself, and readily agreed to take their meals in
the carriage. Thus swept over the road, the notary reached the Rue du
Bercail, after three days of absence, an hour before midnight. And yet
he was too late. He saw the gendarmes at the gate, crossed the
threshold, and met the young Count in the courtyard. Victurnien had
been arrested. If Chesnel had had the power, he would beyond a doubt
have killed the officers and men; as it was, he could only fall on
"If I cannot hush this matter up, you must kill yourself before the
indictment is made out," he whispered. But Victurnien had sunk into
such stupor, that he stared back uncomprehendingly.
"Kill myself?" he repeated.
"Yes. If your courage should fail, my boy, count upon me," said
Chesnel, squeezing Victurnien's hand.
In spite of the anguish of mind and tottering limbs, he stood firmly
planted, to watch the son of his heart, the Comte d'Esgrignon, go out
of the courtyard between two gendarmes, with the commissary, the
justice of the peace, and the clerk of the court; and not until the
figures had disappeared, and the sound of footsteps had died away into
silence, did he recover his firmness and presence of mind.
"You will catch cold, sir," Brigitte remonstrated.
"The devil take you!" cried her exasperated master.
Never in the nine-and-twenty years that Brigitte had been in his
service had she heard such words from him! Her candle fell out of her
hands, but Chesnel neither heeded his housekeeper's alarm nor heard
her exclaim. He hurried off towards the Val-Noble.
"He is out of his mind," said she; "after all, it is no wonder. But
where is he off to? I cannot possibly go after him. What will become
of him? Suppose that he should drown himself?"
And Brigitte went to waken the head-clerk and send him to look along
the river bank; the river had a gloomy reputation just then, for there
had lately been two cases of suicide--one a young man full of promise,
and the other a girl, a victim of seduction. Chesnel went straight to
the Hotel du Croisier. There lay his only hope. The law requires that
a charge of forgery must be brought by a private individual. It was
still possible to withdraw if du Croisier chose to admit that there
had been a misapprehension; and Chesnel had hopes, even then, of
buying the man over.
M. and Mme. du Croisier had much more company than usual that evening.
Only a few persons were in the secret. M. du Ronceret, president of
the Tribunal; M. Sauvager, deputy Public Prosecutor; and M. du
Coudrai, a registrar of mortgages, who had lost his post by voting on
the wrong side, were the only persons who were supposed to know about
it; but Mesdames du Ronceret and du Coudrai had told the news, in
strict confidence, to one or two intimate friends, so that it had
spread half over the semi-noble, semi-bourgeois assembly at M. du
Croisier's. Everybody felt the gravity of the situation, but no one
ventured to speak of it openly; and, moreover, Mme. du Croisier's
attachment to the upper sphere was so well known, that people scarcely
dared to mention the disaster which had befallen the d'Esgrignons or
to ask for particulars. The persons most interested were waiting till
good Mme. du Croisier retired, for that lady always retreated to her
room at the same hour to perform her religious exercises as far as
possible out of her husband's sight.
Du Croisier's adherents, knowing the secret and the plans of the great
commercial power, looked round when the lady of the house disappeared;
but there were still several persons present whose opinions or
interests marked them out as untrustworthy, so they continued to play.
About half past eleven all had gone save intimates: M. Sauvager, M.
Camusot, the examining magistrate, and his wife, M. and Mme. du
Ronceret and their son Fabien, M. and Mme. du Coudrai, and Joseph
Blondet, the eldest of an old judge; ten persons in all.
It is told of Talleyrand that one fatal day, three hours after
midnight, he suddenly interrupted a game of cards in the Duchesse de
Luynes' house by laying down his watch on the table and asking the
players whether the Prince de Conde had any child but the Duc
"Why do you ask?" returned Mme. de Luynes, "when you know so well that
he has not."
"Because if the Prince has no other son, the House of Conde is now at
There was a moment's pause, and they finished the game.--President du
Ronceret now did something very similar. Perhaps he had heard the
anecdote; perhaps, in political life, little minds and great minds are
apt to hit upon the same expression. He looked at his watch, and
interrupted the game of boston with:
"At this moment M. le Comte d'Esgrignon is arrested, and that house
which has held its head so high is dishonored forever."
"Then, have you got hold of the boy?" du Coudrai cried gleefully.
Every one in the room, with the exception of the President, the
deputy, and du Croisier, looked startled.
"He has just been arrested in Chesnel's house, where he was hiding,"
said the deputy public prosecutor, with the air of a capable but
unappreciated public servant, who ought by rights to be Minister of
Police. M. Sauvager, the deputy, was a thin, tall young man of five-
and-twenty, with a lengthy olive-hued countenance, black frizzled
hair, and deep-set eyes; the wide, dark rings beneath them were
completed by the wrinkled purple eyelids above. With a nose like the
beak of some bird of prey, a pinched mouth, and cheeks worn lean with
study and hollowed by ambition, he was the very type of a second-rate
personage on the lookout for something to turn up, and ready to do
anything if so he might get on in the world, while keeping within the
limitations of the possible and the forms of law. His pompous
expression was an admirable indication of the time-serving eloquence
to be expected of him. Chesnel's successor had discovered the young
Count's hiding place to him, and he took great credit to himself for
The news seemed to come as a shock to the examining magistrate, M.
Camusot, who had granted the warrant of arrest on Sauvager's
application, with no idea that it was to be executed so promptly.
Camusot was short, fair, and fat already, though he was only thirty
years old or thereabouts; he had the flabby, livid look peculiar to
officials who live shut up in their private study or in a court of
justice; and his little, pale, yellow eyes were full of the suspicion
which is often mistaken for shrewdness.
Mme. Camusot looked at her spouse, as who should say, "Was I not
"Then the case will come on," was Camusot's comment.
"Could you doubt it?" asked du Coudrai. "Now they have got the Count,
all is over."
"There is the jury," said Camusot. "In this case M. le Prefet is sure
to take care that after the challenges from the prosecution and the
defence, the jury to a man will be for an acquittal.--My advice would
be to come to a compromise," he added, turning to du Croisier.
"Compromise!" echoed the President; "why, he is in the hands of
"Acquitted or convicted, the Comte d'Esgrignon will be dishonored all
the same," put in Sauvager.
"I am bringing an action,"[*] said du Croisier. "I shall have Dupin
senior. We shall see how the d'Esgrignon family will escape out of his
[*] A trial for an offence of this kind in France is an action brought
by a private person (partie civile) to recover damages, and at the
same time a criminal prosecution conducted on behalf of the
"The d'Esgrignons will defend the case and have counsel from Paris;
they will have Berryer," said Mme. Camusot. "You will have a Roland
for your Oliver."
Du Croisier, M. Sauvager, and the President du Ronceret looked at
Camusot, and one thought troubled their minds. The lady's tone, the
way in which she flung her proverb in the faces of the eight
conspirators against the house of d'Esgrignon, caused them inward
perturbation, which they dissembled as provincials can dissemble, by
dint of lifelong practice in the shifts of a monastic existence.
Little Mme. Camusot saw their change of countenance and subsequent
composure when they scented opposition on the part of the examining
magistrate. When her husband unveiled the thoughts in the back of his
own mind, she had tried to plumb the depths of hate in du Croisier's
adherents. She wanted to find out how du Croisier had gained over this
deputy public prosecutor, who had acted so promptly and so directly in
opposition to the views of the central power.
"In any case," continued she, "if celebrated counsel come down from
Paris, there is a prospect of a very interesting session in the Court
of Assize; but the matter will be snuffed out between the Tribunal and
the Court of Appeal. It is only to be expected that the Government
should do all that can be done, below the surface, to save a young man
who comes of a great family, and has the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse for
a friend. So I think that we shall have a 'sensation at Landernau.'"
"How you go on, madame!" the President said sternly. "Can you suppose
that the Court of First Instance will be influenced by considerations
which have nothing to do with justice?"
"The event proves the contrary," she said meaningly, looking full at
Sauvager and the President, who glanced coldly at her.
"Explain yourself, madame," said Sauvager. "you speak as if we had not
done our duty."
"Mme. Camusot meant nothing," interposed her husband.
"But has not M. le President just said something prejudicing a case
which depends on the examination of the prisoner?" said she. "And the
evidence is still to be taken, and the Court had not given its
"We are not at the law-courts," the deputy public prosecutor replied
tartly; "and besides, we know all that."
"But the public prosecutor knows nothing at all about it yet,"
returned she, with an ironical glance. "He will come back from the
Chamber of Deputies in all haste. You have cut out his work for him,
and he, no doubt, will speak for himself."
The deputy prosecutor knitted his thick bushy brows. Those interested
read tardy scruples in his countenance. A great silence followed,
broken by no sound but the dealing of the cards. M. and Mme. Camusot,
sensible of a decided chill in the atmosphere, took their departure to
leave the conspirators to talk at their ease.
"Camusot," the lady began in the street, "you went too far. Why lead
those people to suspect that you will have no part in their schemes?
They will play you some ugly trick."
"What can they do? I am the only examining magistrate."
"Cannot they slander you in whispers, and procure your dismissal?"
At that very moment Chesnel ran up against the couple. The old notary
recognized the examining magistrate; and with the lucidity which comes
of an experience of business, he saw that the fate of the d'Esgrignons
lay in the hands of the young man before him.
"Ah, sir!" he exclaimed, "we shall soon need you badly. Just a word
with you.--Your pardon, madame," he added, as he drew Camusot aside.
Mme. Camusot, as a good conspirator, looked towards du Croisier's
house, ready to break up the conversation if anybody appeared; but she
thought, and thought rightly, that their enemies were busy discussing
this unexpected turn which she had given to the affair. Chesnel
meanwhile drew the magistrate into a dark corner under the wall, and
lowered his voice for his companion's ear.
"If you are for the house of d'Esgrignon," he said, "Mme. la Duchesse
de Maufrigneuse, the Prince of Cadignan, the Ducs de Navarreins and de
Lenoncourt, the Keeper of the Seals, the Chancellor, the King himself,
will interest themselves in you. I have just come from Paris; I knew
all about this; I went post-haste to explain everything at Court. We
are counting on you, and I will keep your secret. If you are hostile,
I shall go back to Paris to-morrow and lodge a complaint with the
Keeper of the Seals that there is a suspicion of corruption. Several
functionaries were at du Croisier's house to-night, and no doubt, ate
and drank there, contrary to law; and besides, they are friends of
Chesnel would have brought the Almighty to intervene if he had had the
power. He did not wait for an answer; he left Camusot and fled like a
deer towards du Croisier's house. Camusot, meanwhile, bidden to reveal
the notary's confidences, was at once assailed with, "Was I not right,
dear?"--a wifely formula used on all occasions, but rather more
vehemently when the fair speaker is in the wrong. By the time they
reached home, Camusot had admitted the superiority of his partner in
life, and appreciated his good fortune in belonging to her; which
confession, doubtless, was the prelude of a blissful night.
Chesnel met his foes in a body as they left du Croisier's house, and
began to fear that du Croisier had gone to bed. In his position he was
compelled to act quickly, and any delay was a misfortune.
"In the King's name!" he cried, as the man-servant was closing the
hall door. He had just brought the King on the scene for the benefit
of an ambitious little official, and the word was still on his lips.
He fretted and chafed while the door was unbarred; then, swift as a
thunderbolt, dashed into the ante-chamber, and spoke to the servant.
"A hundred crowns to you, young man, if you can wake Mme. du Croisier
and send her to me this instant. Tell her anything you like."
Chesnel grew cool and composed as he opened the door of the brightly
lighted drawing-room, where du Croisier was striding up and down. For
a moment the two men scanned each other, with hatred and enmity,
twenty years' deep, in their eyes. One of the two had his foot on the
heart of the house of d'Esgrignon; the other, with a lion's strength,
came forward to pluck it away.
"Your humble servant, sir," said Chesnel. "Have you made the charge?"
"When was it made?"
"Have any steps been taken since the warrant of arrest was issued?"
"I believe so."
"I have come to treat with you."
"Justice must take its course, nothing can stop it, the arrest has
"Never mind that, I am at your orders, at your feet." The old man
knelt before du Croisier, and stretched out his hands entreatingly.
"What do you want? Our lands, our castle? Take all; withdraw the
charge; leave us nothing but life and honor. And over and besides all
this, I will be your servant; command and I will obey."
Du Croisier sat down in an easy-chair and left the old man to kneel.
"You are not vindictive," pleaded Chesnel; "you are good-hearted, you
do not bear us such a grudge that you will not listen to terms. Before
daylight the young man ought to be at liberty."
"The whole town knows that he has been arrested," returned du
Croisier, enjoying his revenge.
"It is a great misfortune, but as there will be neither proofs nor
trial, we can easily manage that."
Du Croisier reflected. He seemed to be struggling with self-interest;
Chesnel thought that he had gained a hold on his enemy through the
great motive of human action. At that supreme moment Mme. du Croisier
"Come here and help me to soften your dear husband, madame?" said
Chesnel, still on his knees. Mme. du Croisier made him rise with every
sign of profound astonishment. Chesnel explained his errand; and when
she knew it, the generous daughter of the intendants of the Ducs de
Alencon turned to du Croisier with tears in her eyes.
"Ah! monsieur, can you hesitate? The d'Esgrignons, the honor of the
province!" she said.
"There is more in it than that," exclaimed du Croisier, rising to
begin his restless walk again.
"More? What more?" asked Chesnel in amazement.
"France is involved, M. Chesnel! It is a question of the country, of
the people, of giving my lords your nobles a lesson, and teaching them
that there is such a thing as justice, and law, and a bourgeoisie--a
lesser nobility as good as they, and a match for them! There shall be
no more trampling down half a score of wheat fields for a single hare;
no bringing shame on families by seducing unprotected girls; they
shall not look down on others as good as they are, and mock at them
for ten whole years, without finding out at last that these things
swell into avalanches, and those avalanches will fall and crush and
bury my lords the nobles. You want to go back to the old order of
things. You want to tear up the social compact, the Charter in which
our rights are set forth---"
"Is it not a sacred mission to open the people's eyes?" cried du
Croisier. "Their eyes will be opened to the morality of your party
when they see nobles going to be tried at the Assize Court like Pierre
and Jacques. They will say, then, that small folk who keep their self-
respect are as good as great folk that bring shame on themselves. The
Assize Court is a light for all the world. Here, I am the champion of
the people, the friend of law. You yourselves twice flung me on the
side of the people--once when you refused an alliance, twice when you
put me under the ban of your society. You are reaping as you have
If Chesnel was startled by this outburst, so no less was Mme. du
Croisier. To her this was a terrible revelation of her husband's
character, a new light not merely on the past but on the future as
well. Any capitulation on the part of the colossus was apparently out
of the question; but Chesnel in no wise retreated before the
"What, monsieur?" said Mme. du Croisier. "Would you not forgive? Then
you are not a Christian."
"I forgive as God forgives, madame, on certain conditions."
"And what are they?" asked Chesnel, thinking that he saw a ray of
"The elections are coming on; I want the votes at your disposal."
"You shall have them."
"I wish that we, my wife and I, should be received familiarly every
evening, with an appearance of friendliness at any rate, by M. le
Marquis d'Esgrignon and his circle," continued du Croisier.
"I do not know how we are going to compass it, but you shall be
"I wish to have the family bound over by a surety of four hundred
thousand francs, and by a written document stating the nature of the
compromise, so as to keep a loaded cannon pointed at its heart."
"We agree," said Chesnel, without admitting that the three hundred
thousand francs was in his possession; "but the amount must be
deposited with a third party and returned to the family after your
election and repayment."
"No; after the marriage of my grand-niece, Mlle. Duval. She will very
likely have four million francs some day; the reversion of our
property (mine and my wife's) shall be settled upon her by her
marriage-contract, and you shall arrange a match between her and the
"NEVER!" repeated du Croisier, quite intoxicated with triumph. "Good-
"Idiot that I am," thought Chesnel, "why did I shrink from a lie to
such a man?"
Du Croisier took himself off; he was pleased with himself; he had
enjoyed Chesnel's humiliation; he had held the destinies of a proud
house, the representatives of the aristocracy of the province,
suspended in his hand; he had set the print of his heel on the very
heart of the d'Esgrignons; and, finally, he had broken off the whole
negotiation on the score of his wounded pride. He went up to his room,
leaving his wife alone with Chesnel. In his intoxication, he saw his
victory clear before him. He firmly believed that the three hundred
thousand francs had been squandered; the d'Esgrignons must sell or
mortgage all that they had to raise the money; the Assize Court was
inevitable to his mind.
An affair of forgery can always be settled out of court in France if
the missing amount is returned. The losers by the crime are usually
well-to-do, and have no wish to blight an imprudent man's character.
But du Croisier had no mind to slacken his hold until he knew what he
was about. He meditated until he fell asleep on the magnificent manner
in which his hopes would be fulfilled by the way of the Assize Court
or by marriage. The murmur of voices below, the lamentations of
Chesnel and Mme. du Croisier, sounded sweet in his ears.
Mme. du Croisier shared Chesnel's views of the d'Esgrignons. She was a
deeply religious woman, a Royalist attached to the noblesse; the
interview had been in every way a cruel shock to her feelings. She, a
staunch Royalist, had heard the roaring of that Liberalism, which, in
her director's opinion, wished to crush the Church. The Left benches
for her meant the popular upheaval and the scaffolds of 1793.
"What would your uncle, that sainted man who hears us, say to this?"
exclaimed Chesnel. Mme. du Croisier made no reply, but the great tears
rolled down her checks.
"You have already been the cause of one poor boy's death; his mother
will go mourning all her days," continued Chesnel; he saw how his
words told, but he would have struck harder and even broken this
woman's heart to save Victurnien. "Do you want to kill Mlle. Armande,
for she would not survive the dishonor of the house for a week? Do you
wish to be the death of poor Chesnel, your old notary? For I shall
kill the Count in prison before they shall bring the charge against
him, and take my own life afterwards, before they shall try me for
murder in an Assize Court."
"That is enough! that is enough, my friend! I would do anything to put
a stop to such an affair; but I never knew M. du Croisier's real
character until a few minutes ago. To you I can make the admission:
there is nothing to be done."
"But what if there is?"
"I would give half the blood in my veins that it were so," said she,
finishing her sentence by a wistful shake of the head.
As the First Consul, beaten on the field of Marengo till five o'clock
in the evening, by six o'clock saw the tide of battle turned by
Desaix's desperate attack and Kellermann's terrific charge, so Chesnel
in the midst of defeat saw the beginnings of victory. No one but a
Chesnel, an old notary, an ex-steward of the manor, old Maitre
Sorbier's junior clerk, in the sudden flash of lucidity which comes
with despair, could rise thus, high as a Napoleon, nay, higher. This
was not Marengo, it was Waterloo, and the Prussians had come up;
Chesnel saw this, and was determined to beat them off the field.
"Madame," he said, "remember that I have been your man of business for
twenty years; remember that if the d'Esgrignons mean the honor of the
province, you represent the honor of the bourgeoisie; it rests with
you, and you alone, to save the ancient house. Now, answer me; are you
going to allow dishonor to fall on the shade of your dead uncle, on
the d'Esgrignons, on poor Chesnel? Do you want to kill Mlle. Armande
weeping yonder? Or do you wish to expiate wrongs done to others by a
deed which will rejoice your ancestors, the intendants of the dukes of
Alencon, and bring comfort to the soul of our dear Abbe? If he could
rise from his grave, he would command you to do this thing that I beg
of you upon my knees."
"What is it?" asked Mme. du Croisier.
"Well. Here are the hundred thousand crowns," said Chesnel, drawing
the bundles of notes from his pocket. "Take them, and there will be an
end of it."
"If that is all," she began, "and if no harm can come of it to my
"Nothing but good," Chesnel replied. "You are saving him from eternal
punishment in hell, at the cost of a slight disappointment here
"He will not be compromised, will he?" she asked, looking into
Then Chesnel read the depths of the poor wife's mind. Mme. du Croisier
was hesitating between her two creeds; between wifely obedience to her
husband as laid down by the Church, and obedience to the altar and the
throne. Her husband, in her eyes, was acting wrongly, but she dared
not blame him; she would fain save the d'Esgrignons, but she was loyal
to her husband's interests.
"Not in the least," Chesnel answered; "your old notary swears it by
the Holy Gospels----"
He had nothing left to lose for the d'Esgrignons but his soul; he
risked it now by this horrible perjury, but Mme. du Croisier must be
deceived, there was no other choice but death. Without losing a
moment, he dictated a form of receipt by which Mme. du Croisier
acknowledged payment of a hundred thousand crowns five days before the
fatal letter of exchange appeared; for he recollected that du Croisier
was away from home, superintending improvements on his wife's property
at the time.
"Now swear to me that you will declare before the examining magistrate
that you received the money on that date," he said, when Mme. du
Croisier had taken the notes and he held the receipt in his hand.
"It will be a lie, will it not?"
"Venial sin," said Chesnel.
"I could not do it without consulting my director, M. l'Abbe
"Very well," said Chesnel, "will you be guided entirely by his advice
in this affair?"
"I promise that."
"And you must not give the money to M. du Croisier until you have been
before the magistrate."
"No. Ah! God give me strength to appear in a Court of Justice and
maintain a lie before men!"
Chesnel kissed Mme. du Croisier's hand, then stood upright, and
majestic as one of the prophets that Raphael painted in the Vatican.
"You uncle's soul is thrilled with joy," he said; "you have wiped out
for ever the wrong that you did by marrying an enemy of altar and
throne"--words that made a lively impression on Mme. du Croisier's
Then Chesnel all at once bethought himself that he must make sure of
the lady's director, the Abbe Couturier. He knew how obstinately
devout souls can work for the triumph of their views when once they
come forward for their side, and wished to secure the concurrence of
the Church as early as possible. So he went to the Hotel d'Esgrignon,
roused up Mlle. Armande, gave her an account of that night's work, and
sped her to fetch the Bishop himself into the forefront of the battle.
"Ah, God in heaven! Thou must save the house of d'Esgrignon!" he
exclaimed, as he went slowly home again. "The affair is developing now
into a fight in a Court of Law. We are face to face with men that have
passions and interests of their own; we can get anything out of them.
This du Croisier has taken advantage of the public prosecutor's
absence; the public prosecutor is devoted to us, but since the opening
of the Chambers he has gone to Paris. Now, what can they have done to
get round his deputy? They have induced him to take up the charge
without consulting his chief. This mystery must be looked into, and
the ground surveyed to-morrow; and then, perhaps, when I have
unraveled this web of theirs, I will go back to Paris to set great
powers at work through Mme. de Maufrigneuse."
So he reasoned, poor, aged, clear-sighted wrestler, before he lay down
half dead with bearing the weight of so much emotion and fatigue. And
yet, before he fell asleep he ran a searching eye over the list of
magistrates, taking all their secret ambitions into account, casting
about for ways of influencing them, calculating his chances in the
coming struggle. Chesnel's prolonged scrutiny of consciences, given in
a condensed form, will perhaps serve as a picture of the judicial
world in a country town.
Magistrates and officials generally are obliged to begin their career
in the provinces; judicial ambition there ferments. At the outset
every man looks towards Paris; they all aspire to shine in the vast
theatre where great political causes come before the courts, and the
higher branches of the legal profession are closely connected with the
palpitating interests of society. But few are called to that paradise
of the man of law, and nine-tenths of the profession are bound sooner
or later to regard themselves as shelved for good in the provinces.
Wherefore, every Tribunal of First Instance and every Court-Royal is
sharply divided in two. The first section has given up hope, and is
either torpid or content; content with the excessive respect paid to
office in a country town, or torpid with tranquillity. The second
section is made up of the younger sort, in whom the desire of success
is untempered as yet by disappointment, and of the really clever men
urged on continually by ambition as with a goad; and these two are
possessed with a sort of fanatical belief in their order.
At this time the younger men were full of Royalist zeal against the
enemies of the Bourbons. The most insignificant deputy official was
dreaming of conducting a prosecution, and praying with all his might
for one of those political cases which bring a man's zeal into
prominence, draw the attention of the higher powers, and mean
advancement for King's men. Was there a member of an official staff of
prosecuting counsel who could hear of a Bonapartist conspiracy
breaking out somewhere else without a feeling of envy? Where was the
man that did not burn to discover a Caron, or a Berton, or a revolt of
some sort? With reasons of State, and the necessity of diffusing the
monarchical spirit throughout France as their basis, and a fierce
ambition stirred up whenever party spirit ran high, these ardent
politicians on their promotion were lucid, clear-sighted, and
perspicacious. They kept up a vigorous detective system throughout the
kingdom; they did the work of spies, and urged the nation along a path
of obedience, from which it had no business to swerve.
Justice, thus informed with monarchical enthusiasm, atoned for the
errors of the ancient parliaments, and walked, perhaps, too
ostentatiously hand in hand with religion. There was more zeal than
discretion shown; but justice sinned not so much in the direction of
machiavelism as by giving the candid expression to its views, when
those views appeared to be opposed to the general interests of a
country which must be put safely out of reach of revolutions. But
taken as a whole, there was still too much of the bourgeois element in
the administration; it was too readily moved by petty liberal
agitation; and as a result, it was inevitable that it should incline
sooner or later to the Constitutional party, and join ranks with the
bourgeoisie in the day of battle. In the great body of legal
functionaries, as in other departments of the administration, there
was not wanting a certain hypocrisy, or rather that spirit of
imitation which always leads France to model herself on the Court,
and, quite unintentionally, to deceive the powers that be.
Officials of both complexions were to be found in the court in which
young d'Esgrignon's fate depended. M. le President du Ronceret and an
elderly judge, Blondet by name, represented the section of
functionaries shelved for good, and resigned to stay where they were;
while the young and ambitious party comprised the examining magistrate
M. Camusot, and his deputy M. Michu, appointed through the interests
of the Cinq-Cygnes, and certain of promotion to the Court of Appeal of
Paris at the first opportunity.
President du Ronceret held a permanent post; it was impossible to turn
him out. The aristocratic party declined to give him what he
considered to be his due, socially speaking; so he declared for the
bourgeoisie, glossed over his disappointment with the name of
independence, and failed to realize that his opinions condemned him to
remain a president of a court of the first instance for the rest of
his life. Once started in this track the sequence of events led du
Ronceret to place his hopes of advancement on the triumph of du
Croisier and the Left. He was in no better odor at the Prefecture than
at the Court-Royal. He was compelled to keep on good terms with the
authorities; the Liberals distrusted him, consequently he belonged to
neither party. He was obliged to resign his chances of election to du
Croisier, he exercised no influence, and played a secondary part. The
false position reacted on his character; he was soured and
discontented; he was tired of political ambiguity, and privately had
made up his mind to come forward openly as leader of the Liberal
party, and so to strike ahead of du Croisier. His behavior in the
d'Esgrignon affair was the first step in this direction. To begin
with, he was an admirable representative of that section of the middle
classes which allows its petty passions to obscure the wider interests
of the country; a class of crotchety politicians, upholding the
government one day and opposing it the next, compromising every cause
and helping none; helpless after they have done the mischief till they
set about brewing more; unwilling to face their own incompetence,
thwarting authority while professing to serve it. With a compound of
arrogance and humility they demand of the people more submission than
kings expect, and fret their souls because those above them are not
brought down to their level, as if greatness could be little, as if
power existed without force.
President du Ronceret was a tall, spare man with a receding forehead
and scanty, auburn hair. He was wall-eyed, his complexion was
blotched, his lips thin and hard, his scarcely audible voice came out
like the husky wheezings of asthma. He had for a wife a great, solemn,
clumsy creature, tricked out in the most ridiculous fashion, and
outrageously overdressed. Mme. la Presidente gave herself the airs of
a queen; she wore vivid colors, and always appeared at balls adorned
with the turban, dear to the British female, and lovingly cultivated
in out-of-the-way districts in France. Each of the pair had an income
of four or five thousand francs, which with the President's salary,
reached a total of some twelve thousand. In spite of a decided
tendency to parsimony, vanity required that they should receive one
evening in the week. Du Croisier might import modern luxury into the
town, M. and Mme. de Ronceret were faithful to the old traditions.
They had always lived in the old-fashioned house belonging to Mme. du
Ronceret, and had made no changes in it since their marriage. The
house stood between a garden and a courtyard. The gray old gable end,
with one window in each story, gave upon the road. High walls enclosed
the garden and the yard, but the space taken up beneath them in the
garden by a walk shaded with chestnut trees was filled in the yard by
a row of outbuildings. An old rust-devoured iron gate in the garden
wall balanced the yard gateway, a huge, double-leaved carriage
entrance with a buttress on either side, and a mighty shell on the
top. The same shell was repeated over the house-door.
The whole place was gloomy, close, and airless. The row of iron-gated
openings in the opposite wall, as you entered, reminded you of prison
windows. Every passer-by could look in through the railings to see how
the garden grew; the flowers in the little square borders never seemed
to thrive there.
The drawing-room on the ground floor was lighted by a single window on
the side of the street, and a French window above a flight of steps,
which gave upon the garden. The dining-room on the other side of the
great ante-chamber, with its windows also looking out into the garden,
was exactly the same size as the drawing-room, and all three
apartments were in harmony with the general air of gloom. It wearied
your eyes to look at the ceilings all divided up by huge painted
crossbeams and adorned with a feeble lozenge pattern or a rosette in
the middle. The paint was old, startling in tint, and begrimed with
smoke. The sun had faded the heavy silk curtains in the drawing-room;
the old-fashioned Beauvais tapestry which covered the white-painted
furniture had lost all its color with wear. A Louis Quinze clock on
the chimney-piece stood between two extravagant, branched sconces
filled with yellow wax candles, which the Presidente only lighted on
occasions when the old-fashioned rock-crystal chandelier emerged from
its green wrapper. Three card-tables, covered with threadbare baize,
and a backgammon box, sufficed for the recreations of the company; and
Mme. du Ronceret treated them to such refreshments as cider,
chestnuts, pastry puffs, glasses of eau sucree, and home-made orgeat.
For some time past she had made a practice of giving a party once a
fortnight, when tea and some pitiable attempts at pastry appeared to
grace the occasion.
Once a quarter the du Roncerets gave a grand three-course dinner,
which made a great sensation in the town, a dinner served up in
execrable ware, but prepared with the science for which the provincial
cook is remarkable. It was a Gargantuan repast, which lasted for six
whole hours, and by abundance the President tried to vie with du
And so du Ronceret's life and its accessories were just what might
have been expected from his character and his false position. He felt
dissatisfied at home without precisely knowing what was the matter;
but he dared not go to any expense to change existing conditions, and
was only too glad to put by seven or eight thousand francs every year,
so as to leave his son Fabien a handsome private fortune. Fabien du
Ronceret had no mind for the magistracy, the bar, or the civil
service, and his pronounced turn for doing nothing drove his parent to
On this head there was rivalry between the President and the Vice-
President, old M. Blondet. M. Blondet, for a long time past, had been
sedulously cultivating an acquaintance between his son and the
Blandureau family. The Blandureaus were well-to-do linen
manufacturers, with an only daughter, and it was on this daughter that
the President had fixed his choice of a wife for Fabien. Now, Joseph
Blondet's marriage with Mlle. Blandureau depended on his nomination to
the post which his father, old Blondet, hoped to obtain for him when
he himself should retire. But President du Ronceret, in underhand
ways, was thwarting the old man's plans, and working indirectly upon
the Blandureaus. Indeed, if it had not been for this affair of young
d'Esgrignon's, the astute President might have cut them out, father
and son, for their rivals were very much richer.
M. Blondet, the victim of the machiavelian President's intrigues, was
one of the curious figures which lie buried away in the provinces like
old coins in a crypt. He was at that time a man of sixty-seven or
thereabouts, but he carried his years well; he was very tall, and in
build reminded you of the canons of the good old times. The smallpox
had riddled his face with numberless dints, and spoilt the shape of
his nose by imparting to it a gimlet-like twist; it was a countenance
by no means lacking in character, very evenly tinted with a diffused
red, lighted up by a pair of bright little eyes, with a sardonic look
in them, while a certain sarcastic twitch of the purpled lips gave
expression to that feature.
Before the Revolution broke out, Blondet senior had been a barrister;
afterwards he became the public accuser, and one of the mildest of
those formidable functionaries. Goodman Blondet, as they used to call
him, deadened the force of the new doctrines by acquiescing in them
all, and putting none of them in practice. He had been obliged to send
one or two nobles to prison; but his further proceedings were marked
with such deliberation, that he brought them through to the 9th
Thermidor with a dexterity which won respect for him on all sides. As
a matter of fact, Goodman Blondet ought to have been President of the
Tribunal, but when the courts of law were reorganized he had been set
aside; Napoleon's aversion for Republicans was apt to reappear in the
smallest appointments under his government. The qualification of
ex-public accuser, written in the margin of the list against Blondet's
name, set the Emperor inquiring of Cambaceres whether there might not
be some scion of an ancient parliamentary stock to appoint instead.
The consequence was that du Ronceret, whose father had been a
councillor of parliament, was nominated to the presidency; but, the
Emperor's repugnance notwithstanding, Cambaceres allowed Blondet to
remain on the bench, saying that the old barrister was one of the best
jurisconsults in France.
Blondet's talents, his knowledge of the old law of the land and
subsequent legislation, should by rights have brought him far in his
profession; but he had this much in common with some few great
spirits: he entertained a prodigious contempt for his own special
knowledge, and reserved all his pretentions, leisure, and capacity for
a second pursuit unconnected with the law. To this pursuit he gave his
almost exclusive attention. The good man was passionately fond of
gardening. He was in correspondence with some of the most celebrated
amateurs; it was his ambition to create new species; he took an
interest in botanical discoveries, and lived, in short, in the world
of flowers. Like all florists, he had a predilection for one
particular plant; the pelargonium was his especial favorite. The
court, the cases that came before it, and his outward life were as
nothing to him compared with the inward life of fancies and abundant
emotions which the old man led. He fell more and more in love with his
flower-seraglio; and the pains which he bestowed on his garden, the
sweet round of the labors of the months, held Goodman Blondet fast in
his greenhouse. But for that hobby he would have been a deputy under
the Empire, and shone conspicuous beyond a doubt in the Corps
His marriage was the second cause of his obscurity. As a man of forty,
he was rash enough to marry a girl of eighteen, by whom he had a son
named Joseph in the first year of their marriage. Three years
afterwards Mme. Blondet, then the prettiest woman in the town,
inspired in the prefect of the department a passion which ended only
with her death. The prefect was the father of her second son Emile;
the whole town knew this, old Blondet himself knew it. The wife who
might have roused her husband's ambition, who might have won him away
from his flowers, positively encouraged the judge in his botanical
tastes. She no more cared to leave the place than the prefect cared to
leave his prefecture so long as his mistress lived.
Blondet felt himself unequal at his age to a contest with a young
wife. He sought consolation in his greenhouse, and engaged a very
pretty servant-maid to assist him to tend his ever-changing bevy of
beauties. So while the judge potted, pricked out, watered, layered,
slipped, blended, and induced his flowers to break, Mme. Blondet spent
his substance on the dress and finery in which she shone at the
prefecture. One interest alone had power to draw her away from the
tender care of a romantic affection which the town came to admire in
the end; and this interest was Emile's education. The child of love
was a bright and pretty boy, while Joseph was no less heavy and plain-
featured. The old judge, blinded by paternal affection loved Joseph as
his wife loved Emile.
For a dozen years M. Blondet bore his lot with perfect resignation. He
shut his eyes to his wife's intrigue with a dignified, well-bred
composure, quite in the style of an eighteenth century grand seigneur;
but, like all men with a taste for a quiet life, he could cherish a
profound dislike, and he hated his younger son. When his wife died,
therefore, in 1818, he turned the intruder out of the house, and
packed him off to Paris to study law on an allowance of twelve hundred
francs for all resource, nor could any cry of distress extract another
penny from his purse. Emile Blondet would have gone under if it had
not been for his real father.
M. Blondet's house was one of the prettiest in the town. It stood
almost opposite the prefecture, with a neat little court in front. A
row of old-fashioned iron railings between two brick-work piers
enclosed it from the street; and a low wall, also of brick, with a
second row of railings along the top, connected the piers with the
neighboring house. The little court, a space about ten fathoms in
width by twenty in length, was cut in two by a brick pathway which ran
from the gate to the house door between a border on either side. Those
borders were always renewed; at every season of the year they
exhibited a successful show of blossom, to the admiration of the
public. All along the back of the gardenbeds a quantity of climbing
plants grew up and covered the walls of the neighboring houses with a
magnificent mantle; the brick-work piers were hidden in clusters of
honeysuckle; and, to crown all, in a couple of terra-cotta vases at
the summit, a pair of acclimatized cactuses displayed to the
astonished eyes of the ignorant those thick leaves bristling with
spiny defences which seem to be due to some plant disease.
It was a plain-looking house, built of brick, with brick-work arches
above the windows, and bright green Venetian shutters to make it gay.
Through the glass door you could look straight across the house to the
opposite glass door, at the end of a long passage, and down the
central alley in the garden beyond; while through the windows of the
dining-room and drawing-room, which extended, like the passage from
back to front of the house, you could often catch further glimpses of
the flower-beds in a garden of about two acres in extent. Seen from
the road, the brick-work harmonized with the fresh flowers and shrubs,
for two centuries had overlaid it with mosses and green and russet
tints. No one could pass through the town without falling in love with
a house with such charming surroundings, so covered with flowers and
mosses to the roof-ridge, where two pigeons of glazed crockery ware
were perched by way of ornament.
M. Blondet possessed an income of about four thousand livres derived
from land, besides the old house in the town. He meant to avenge his
wrongs legitimately enough. He would leave his house, his lands, his
seat on the bench to his son Joseph, and the whole town knew what he
meant to do. He had made a will in that son's favor; he had gone as
far as the Code will permit a man to go in the way of disinheriting
one child to benefit another; and what was more, he had been putting
by money for the past fifteen years to enable his lout of a son to buy
back from Emile that portion of his father's estate which could not
legally be taken away from him.
Emile Blondet thus turned adrift had contrived to gain distinction in
Paris, but so far it was rather a name than a practical result.
Emile's indolence, recklessness, and happy-go-lucky ways drove his
real father to despair; and when that father died, a half-ruined man,
turned out of office by one of the political reactions so frequent
under the Restoration, it was with a mind uneasy as to the future of a
man endowed with the most brilliant qualities.
Emile Blondet found support in a friendship with a Mlle. de
Troisville, whom he had known before her marriage with the Comte de
Montcornet. His mother was living when the Troisvilles came back after
the emigration; she was related to the family, distantly it is true,
but the connection was close enough to allow her to introduce Emile to
the house. She, poor woman, foresaw the future. She knew that when she
died her son would lose both mother and father, a thought which made
death doubly bitter, so she tried to interest others in him. She
encouraged the liking that sprang up between Emile and the eldest
daughter of the house of Troisville; but while the liking was
exceedingly strong on the young lady's part, a marriage was out of the
question. It was a romance on the pattern of Paul et Virginie. Mme.
Blondet did what she could to teach her son to look to the
Troisvilles, to found a lasting attachment on a children's game of
"make-believe" love, which was bound to end as boy-and-girl romances
usually do. When Mlle. de Troisville's marriage with General
Montcornet was announced, Mme. Blondet, a dying woman, went to the
bride and solemnly implored her never to abandon Emile, and to use her
influence for him in society in Paris, whither the General's fortune
summoned her to shine.
Luckily for Emile, he was able to make his own way. He made his
appearance, at the age of twenty, as one of the masters of modern
literature; and met with no less success in the society into which he
was launched by the father who at first could afford to bear the
expense of the young man's extravagance. Perhaps Emile's precocious
celebrity and the good figure that he made strengthened the bonds of
his friendship with the Countess. Perhaps Mme. de Montcornet, with the
Russian blood in her veins (her mother was the daughter of the
Princess Scherbelloff), might have cast off the friend of her
childhood if he had been a poor man struggling with all his might
among the difficulties which beset a man of letters in Paris; but by
the time that the real strain of Emile's adventurous life began, their
attachment was unalterable on either side. He was looked upon as one
of the leading lights of journalism when young d'Esgrignon met him at
his first supper party in Paris; his acknowledged position in the
world of letters was very high, and he towered above his reputation.
Goodman Blondet had not the faintest conception of the power which the
Constitutional Government had given to the press; nobody ventured to
talk in his presence of the son of whom he refused to hear. And so it
came to pass that he knew nothing of Emile whom he had cursed and
Old Blondet's integrity was as deeply rooted in him as his passion for
flowers; he knew nothing but law and botany. He would have interviews
with litigants, listen to them, chat with them, and show them his
flowers; he would accept rare seeds from them; but once on the bench,
no judge on earth was more impartial. Indeed, his manner of proceeding
was so well known, that litigants never went near him except to hand
over some document which might enlighten him in the performance of his
duty, and nobody tried to throw dust in his eyes. With his learning,
his lights, and his way of holding his real talents cheap, he was so
indispensable to President du Ronceret, that, matrimonial schemes
apart, that functionary would have done all that he could, in an
underhand way, to prevent the vice-president from retiring in favor of
his son. If the learned old man left the bench, the President would be
utterly unable to do without him.
Goodman Blondet did not know that it was in Emile's power to fulfil
all his wishes in a few hours. The simplicity of his life was worthy
of one of Plutarch's men. In the evening he looked over his cases;
next morning he worked among his flowers; and all day long he gave
decisions on the bench. The pretty maid-servant, now of ripe age, and
wrinkled like an Easter pippin, looked after the house, and they lived
according to the established customs of the strictest parsimony. Mlle.
Cadot always carried the keys of her cupboards and fruit-loft about
with her. She was indefatigable. She went to market herself, she
cooked and dusted and swept, and never missed mass of a morning. To
give some idea of the domestic life of the household, it will be
enough to remark that the father and son never ate fruit till it was
beginning to spoil, because Mlle. Cadot always brought out anything
that would not keep. No one in the house ever tasted the luxury of new
bread, and all the fast days in the calendar were punctually observed.
The gardener was put on rations like a soldier; the elderly Valideh
always kept an eye upon him. And she, for her part, was so
deferentially treated, that she took her meals with the family, and in
consequence was continually trotting to and fro between the kitchen
and the parlor at breakfast and dinner time.
Mlle. Blandureau's parents had consented to her marriage with Joseph
Blondet upon one condition--the penniless and briefless barrister must
be an assistant judge. So, with the desire of fitting his son to fill
the position, old M. Blondet racked his brains to hammer the law into
his son's head by dint of lessons, so as to make a cut-and-dried
lawyer of him. As for Blondet junior, he spent almost every evening at
the Blandureaus' house, to which also young Fabien du Ronceret had
been admitted since his return, without raising the slightest
suspicion in the minds of father or son.
Everything in this life of theirs was measured with an accuracy worthy
of Gerard Dow's Money Changer; not a grain of salt too much, not a
single profit foregone; but the economical principles by which it was
regulated were relaxed in favor of the greenhouse and garden. "The
garden was the master's craze," Mlle. Cadot used to say. The master's
blind fondness for Joseph was not a craze in her eyes; she shared the
father's predilection; she pampered Joseph; she darned his stockings;
and would have been better pleased if the money spent on the garden
had been put by for Joseph's benefit.
That garden was kept in marvelous order by a single man; the paths,
covered with river-sand, continually turned over with the rake,
meandered among the borders full of the rarest flowers. Here were all
kinds of color and scent, here were lizards on the walls, legions of
little flower-pots standing out in the sun, regiments of forks and
hoes, and a host of innocent things, a combination of pleasant results
to justify the gardener's charming hobby.
At the end of the greenhouse the judge had set up a grandstand, an
amphitheatre of benches to hold some five or six thousand pelargoniums
in pots--a splendid and famous show. People came to see his geraniums
in flower, not only from the neighborhood, but even from the
departments round about. The Empress Marie Louise, passing through the
town, had honored the curiously kept greenhouse with a visit; so much
was she impressed with the sight, that she spoke of it to Napoleon,
and the old judge received the Cross of the Legion of Honor. But as
the learned gardener never mingled in society at all, and went nowhere
except to the Blandureaus, he had no suspicion of the President's
underhand manoeuvres; and others who could see the President's
intentions were far too much afraid of him to interfere or to warn the
As for Michu, that young man with his powerful connections gave much
more thought to making himself agreeable to the women in the upper
social circles to which he was introduced by the Cinq-Cygnes, than to
the extremely simple business of a provincial Tribunal. With his
independent means (he had an income of twelve thousand livres), he was
courted by mothers of daughters, and led a frivolous life. He did just
enough at the Tribunal to satisfy his conscience, much as a schoolboy
does his exercises, saying ditto on all occasions, with a "Yes, dear
President." But underneath the appearance of indifference lurked the
unusual powers of the Paris law student who had distinguished himself
as one of the staff of prosecuting counsel before he came to the
provinces. He was accustomed to taking broad views of things; he could
do rapidly what the President and Blondet could only do after much
thinking, and very often solved knotty points for them. In delicate
conjunctures the President and Vice-President took counsel with their
junior, confided thorny questions to him, and never failed to wonder
at the readiness with which he brought back a task in which old
Blondet found nothing to criticise. Michu was sure of the influence of
the most crabbed aristocrats, and he was young and rich; he lived,
therefore, above the level of departmental intrigues and pettinesses.
He was an indispensable man at picnics, he frisked with young ladies
and paid court to their mothers, he danced at balls, he gambled like a
capitalist. In short, he played his part of young lawyer of fashion to
admiration; without, at the same time, compromising his dignity, which
he knew how to assert at the right moment like a man of spirit. He won
golden opinions by the manner in which he threw himself into
provincial ways, without criticising them; and for these reasons,
every one endeavored to make his time of exile endurable.
The public prosecutor was a lawyer of the highest ability; he had
taken the plunge into political life, and was one of the most
distinguished speakers on the ministerialist benches. The President
stood in awe of him; if he had not been away in Paris at the time, no
steps would have been taken against Victurnien; his dexterity, his
experience of business, would have prevented the whole affair. At that
moment, however, he was in the Chamber of Deputies, and the President
and du Croisier had taken advantage of his absence to weave their
plot, calculating, with a certain ingenuity, that if once the law
stepped in, and the matter was noised abroad, things would have gone
too far to be remedied.
As a matter of fact, no staff of prosecuting counsel in any Tribunal,
at that particular time, would have taken up a charge of forgery
against the eldest son of one of the noblest houses in France without
going into the case at great length, and a special reference, in all
probability, to the Attorney-General. In such a case as this, the
authorities and the Government would have tried endless ways of
compromising and hushing up an affair which might send an imprudent
young man to the hulks. They would very likely have done the same for
a Liberal family in a prominent position, so long as the Liberals were
not too openly hostile to the throne and the altar. So du Croisier's
charge and the young Count's arrest had not been very easy to manage.
The President and du Croisier had compassed their ends in the
M. Sauvager, a young Royalist barrister, had reached the position of
deputy public prosecutor by dint of subservience to the Ministry. In
the absence of his chief he was head of the staff of counsel for
prosecution, and, consequently, it fell to him to take up the charge
made by du Croisier. Sauvager was a self-made man; he had nothing but
his stipend; and for that reason the authorities reckoned upon some
one who had everything to gain by devotion. The President now
exploited the position. No sooner was the document with the alleged
forgery in du Croisier's hands, than Mme. la Presidente du Ronceret,
prompted by her spouse, had a long conversation with M. Sauvager. In
the course of it she pointed out the uncertainties of a career in the
magistrature debout compared with the magistrature assise, and the
advantages of the bench over the bar; she showed how a freak on the
part of some official, or a single false step, might ruin a man's
"If you are conscientious and give your conclusions against the powers
that be, you are lost," continued she. "Now, at this moment, you might
turn your position to account to make a fine match that would put you
above unlucky chances for the rest of your life; you may marry a wife
with fortune sufficient to land you on the bench, in the magistrature
assise. There is a fine chance for you. M. du Croisier will never have
any children; everybody knows why. His money, and his wife's as well,
will go to his niece, Mlle. Duval. M. Duval is an ironmaster, his
purse is tolerably filled, to begin with, and his father is still
alive, and has a little property besides. The father and son have a
million of francs between them; they will double it with du Croisier's
help, for du Croisier has business connections among great capitalists